Music review: Hippfest, Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness

SIX YEARS old and in ruder health than ever, Bo’ness’s Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema just seems to get bigger and better every time.

SIX YEARS old and in ruder health than ever, Bo’ness’s Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema just seems to get bigger and better every time.

Maybe bigger isn’t quite the right word: there’s a limit, after all, to how many people can pack out the town’s exquisite 1911 Hippodrome cinema for the festival’s mix of rare screen gems and live music – but that intimacy is a big part of the event’s charm. But HippFest 6 was bigger, certainly, in its ambitions and its international reach. This year festival director Alison Strauss cast her net impressively wide to discover little-known early movies from Germany, Poland, Ukraine, China and elsewhere. And the musicians Strauss involved felt more unexpected, more of a gamble, but more revelatory as a result.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Edinburgh-based composer and pianist Jane Gardner was at HippFest two years ago with an elegant piano soundtrack to Japanese gangster thriller Dragnet Girl. Her contribution this year – the first of the festival’s two commissions – was an entirely different beast, however. Earth (****) is a remarkable Soviet propaganda movie from 1930, in which director Alexander Dovzhenko celebrates the arrival of farm mechanisation in the Ukraine, using a succession of ravishingly beautiful, almost dream-like images of rural life and the hardy folk whose lives are devoted to the land. Gardner had clearly drawn on Russian classics for her muscular, demanding piano score – Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov all got respectful nods. But most memorable were her rippling textures to complement the wind across cornfields, and gorgeously fuzzy piano resonances as the ideal counterpart to a sequence of soft-focus faces. It was remarkable how sensitively she mirrored the on-screen action. She was joined on stage by percussionist Hazel Morrison, but percussion felt a bit of an add-on. By the end – with its synthesised choirs from Gardner’s laptop – it felt like not just the rediscovery of a Soviet cinema classic, but a whole new meditation on nature, time and progress.

The following evening’s Mania (****) with live music from Polish folk/rock quartet Czerwie took a very different approach, but with no less success. The group played basically an album’s worth of electro/retro tracks that seemed to channel everything from Depeche Mode to Tricky to Siouxie Sioux, but that format brilliantly matched the quite staged procession of scenes in Eugen Illés’s 1918 German movie about a cigarette girl (magnetic silent movie star Pola Negri) who becomes the unlikely muse to a budding composer. With throbbing basslines and skittering percussion, and the wail of a vertically-played violin, Czerwie provided a provocatively anachronistic soundscape to the century-old images, but one whose seductive and unsettling atmosphere complemented the film’s decadence to a tee.

There was more movie decadence on Saturday afternoon, when seasoned silent movie accompanist and HippFest regular Stephen Horne provided a remarkably rich soundtrack to 1925 German feature Variety (****), playing piano, accordion and flute (often simultaneously), and joined by percussionist Frank Bockhuis. It felt just the right kind of intense expressiveness for the bizarre, decadent, Emil Jannings-starring tale of lust and murder among circus trapeze artists.

Later on Saturday afternoon, pianist John Sweeney gave a gloriously lyrical accompaniment to 1933 Chinese feature Daybreak (****), rhapsodic and tender, full of Eastern exoticism. But what really fascinated was the movie itself, an epic, no-holds-barred account of a Chinese country girl’s journey to Shanghai, in and out of the sex industry, to become a martyr for the burgeoning revolutionary cause.

On a different level entirely, however, was Saturday’s concluding show, featuring the strange but wonderful 1925 German semi-documentary Wunder der Schöpfung (Wonder of Creation) (*****) on the cosmos and our place in it, with a brand new score from Scottish-based jazz duo Herschel 36 – pianist Paul Harrison and percussionist Stuart Brown. The film was often as comic as it was illuminating – certainly in its speculations about life on the solar system’s outer planets – but thrilling in its special effects. And the duo’s moody, ambient score struck just the right balance between awe and alienation. It was like nothing else in the festival – a bold but beautifully judged reappraisal of a ground-breaking movie from almost a century ago – and it captured HippFest’s ambitious, pioneering spirit magnificently.